Oil capture spotlights Somali pirates' reach
A supertanker hijacking helped boost the price of oil early this week.
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But even if piracy has yet to turn into a full-blown moneymaking operation for global terrorist networks such as Al Qaeda, it has grown into a serious business. Piracy off the coast of Somalia has more than doubled this year, with 60 ships hijacked, according to the Chatham House report. And profits are up.Skip to next paragraph
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Ransoms that used to be in the tens of thousands of dollars a few years ago can now be a few million dollars. And this has been a good year for pirates: Total ransom payments for 2008 could top $30 million, the report says.
"Shipping firms, and sometimes governments, are prepared to pay these sums since they are relatively small compared with the value of a ship, let alone the life of crew members," the report says.
The International Maritime Organization, a "UN of the seas" operates in an area that is more than 1.1 million square miles, with ships from countries like Russia, the US, and other NATO countries patrolling these areas.
That presence alone has helped to reduce the number of successful pirate attacks, from 53 percent in August to 31 percent in October, according to the US Navy. American defense officials familiar with the issue say it's hard to protect tankers and other ships from the skiffs.
Some skiffs are legitimate, and the ones with ill intent move so fast it is hard to ward them off before they attack. And the pirates are increasingly operating in what navies refer to as "blue water" – far offshore – by using other, larger boats from which the skiffs are launched to attack boats at sea.
The Sirius Star, the largest ship ever to be hijacked, was also the farthest from shore, some 450 miles off the coast of Kenya.
American officials would like to prevent more attacks, but are emphatic in their view that it is an international problem in need of an international solution.
Simply remanding the hijackers to their native country – Somalia, which lacks any formal criminal justice system – would be pointless, American defense officials say.
That leaves few options.
"There is no international stomach for us to go back 200 years and bind the hands and feet of these pirates and send them into the briny deep," says one American Navy official.